Exhibition of Thomas Cole Paintings Inspires New Musical by Sarah Lawrence Faculty

A new exhibition of paintings by 19th century landscape artist Thomas Cole was the inspiration for a new musical by two Sarah Lawrence College professors and will have three performances, beginning on November 16.  

Allen Lang, director of Theatre Outreach at Sarah Lawrence, wrote the book and lyrics to What Happened at Catskill Creek: A Musical for Every Body, with music composed and arranged by William Catanzaro, a musician member of the dance faculty. 

The show, at just 50 minutes long, is suitable for all ages and is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers and the SLC Theatre Outreach program. Thomas Cole’s Refrain: The Paintings of Catskill Creek will be on display at the museum from November 22, 2019 to February 23, 2020.  

Featuring Sarah Lawrence theatre students, the musical will be performed at the museum on Saturday, November 23 at 1:30 pm and is free with general admission. Additional performances will take place at Sarah Lawrence’s Cannon Theatre on Saturday, November 16 at 1 pm and Monday, December 2 at 7 pm. The November 16 performance is part of the Lunchbox Theatre series, a signature program of Theatre Outreach, which offers a free process-centered theatre curriculum on Saturdays for members of the local community. 

What Happened at Catskill Creek focuses on two themes that dominated Cole’s life—creativity and the preservation of the environment. The museum invited Lang to create a work in connection to the Cole exhibit last spring, and his idea for the short musical came into focus during a summer visit to some of the Northwest’s most popular natural wonders.

“I watched people going to these sites, almost like they’re on a pilgrimage,” said Lang. “That led me to creating this piece about a family making its way to Catskill Creek, a place with such a history of creativity and art making, and the pull of nature.”

Lang visited Cole’s former home and studio, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York, and spent time driving around the area countryside for further inspiration, to see firsthand vistas that Cole might have seen or even painted. 

The musical’s story focuses on a mother who is eager to connect with nature and wants her two children to unplug and relate to one another. In the course of their visit to Catskill Creek they are visited by the ghost of Cole as well as a mysterious female photographer and a contemporary landscape artist, both based on artists—Janelle Lynch and James McElhinny—who have companion exhibits at the Hudson River Museum. Through the influence of these visitors, each of the family members is creatively inspired and all gain a greater understanding of themselves.

A fan of absurdist theatre, Lang says the musical is a post-modern theatre piece that references Eugenie Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Christopher Isherwood. “If audiences get it, great, but it’s not necessary,” he said. 

Catanzaro’s music for What Happened at Catskill Creek is all original, with the exception of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” for which he’s written a new arrangement. Lang says Catanzaro, with whom he’s collaborated before, will play all the music. “He’s like a one man band,” said Lang. “He’ll play drums, piano, synthesizers, and the arrangements are just gorgeous. Every song is completely different.”

The museum exhibition covers an 18-year period in Cole’s life, which spans his mature career and “explores the deeper meanings of Cole’s Catskill Creek paintings, considered as an integral series for the first time,” according to the museum. 

Cole, the founder of America’s first art movement, known as the Hudson River School, lived near Catskill Creek—a tributary of the Hudson River—from the time he started painting landscapes, in about 1825. He was entranced by the natural beauty of the area and soon moved to the town of Catskill, at the mouth of the Creek. From then until his death in 1848 he created nearly 100 paintings, the majority of the surrounding countryside

About Sarah Lawrence College

Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious, coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country. Sarah Lawrence is known for its pioneering approach to education, rich history of impassioned intellectual and civic engagement, and vibrant, successful alumni. In close proximity to the unparalleled offerings of New York City, the historic campus is home to an intellectually curious and diverse community.